Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,237th Meeting

President Kenneth Haapala called the 2,236th meeting to order at 8:15 pm April 11, 2008 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The minutes of the 2,236th meeting were read and approved with one correction.

Mr. Haapala introduced the speaker of the evening, futurist Joseph Coates. Mr. Coates spoke on “Reviving Le Problematique.” Mr. Coates has worked in the future for many years in the past.


Le problematique, Mr. Coates said, was invented by the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome was founded by Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist, and Alexander King, a long-time leader in scientific matters in Great Britain during World War II and the years following. They coined the term, the “world problematique” or “global problematique.” What they meant was a reflection of the way people typically look at problems. They typically picture them as a series of interconnected problems. This doesn’t tell you much except that the things are kind of complex.

The Club of Rome wanted to go beyond that and see each problem as a cluster of problems, a systemic problem that was built into the situation of which it was a problem, and that those systems linked up to each other. They were changing the nature of public policy concerns with this notion of the problematique.

To appreciate this, we must appreciate the importance of words in representing reality. Without terms like “terrible twos,” how would parents talk to each other about problems with their children? Without the term “Alzheimer’s,” how would we discuss the problems of our elderly demented relatives? Without “health care,” what would we call the mess? They were attempting to give a new way to look at these major problems.

If it worked, what might we expect? We might expect recognition that problems in a complex world usually require complex solutions. We might recognize that systems are a central concept in thinking about complex issues. Mr. Coates observed that policy makers and analysts rarely use the word system these days, indeed they carefully waltz around it. A problematique also forces identification of stakeholders, all those who affect or are affected by a problem, and their needs and effects. Finally, it would identify the key points where change is needed.

The first project where le problematique was used was “Limits to Growth.” It began in 1968 and concluded in 1972. It resulted in a book of the same name that was translated into 30 languages and sold 30 million copies. It was the largest selling environmental book ever.

The technique was duplicated four or five times but interest in it waned. It did not point to individals or individual institutions and demand action.

Mr. Coates recommended having a client or at least a putative client and knowing what the client can do and can not do. As an example of the importance of this, he recalled a time when a National Science Foundation grantee had done a thorough job of identifying and cluster-graphing the elements of a problem. The picture, a kind of ziggurat, he called it, was complicated. He said it was great work, but recommended against presenting it to the White House. Nevertheless, it was, with the result Mr. Coates predicted. They were laughed at. White House people, he said, have a short focus. To them, things that don’t point to immediate solutions with accompanying headlines are pointless.

Inventory the stakeholders. Know what their motivation is and how to link into that. See how their needs play out against others.

Recommendations need to be specific and positive. Recommendations like “Fight crime,” are laudable but useless without achievable specifics.

He turned to the importance of the system concept. Everything, he said, that is worth studying is a system. Your approach should be systemic (not systematic). Look at all the elements that comprise that system, how they relate to each other, what are the origins of the problem you are concerned about, and what can be done about it. A system is a collection of elements interacting in a coherent way to achieve some explicit or implicit objective.

Why can’t we treat systems systemically? One reason is bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are secretive. They are problem avoiding. Maintenance of the bureaucracy is rule number one. They have extensive rules. Police forces and universities reflect this.

Legislators are the biggest barrier to systems approaches. Their horizon is the next election. As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” You can’t get anything done unless it can be maximally related to the local constituencies. Committees and subcommittees give chairmen opportunity for petty tyranny. Petty tyrants force project leaders to lowball estimates so they can claim credit for conservative government. Later they claim more credit for finding the problems the lowballing produces.

Mr. Coates gave a series of examples of a lack of systems thinking. The Millennium Project was useful in this. Many participants identified as most serious problems facing mankind problems that were actually focused on narrow, parochial interests. Similarly, the National Academy of Engineering was cited for identifying the “first class problems of engineering.” Mr. Coates informed us there are no first class problems of engineering; there are only first class problems of which engineering is a major part. A leading light of the internet dismissed a boatload of problems by declaring they were social problems, not in his department, although elements of their solution clearly were.

He showed some diagrams that he called gestalts. They showed the main part of the problem in the center and the related parts around the edges. One such diagram he referred to as a ziggurat, with the main function in the center and the related ones around the edges and at lower levels. He said such diagrams are quite important in future studies. The gestalt is the centerpiece that drives the study. It also serves as a checklist and an indicator of who needs to be brought in on the review.

Finally, he emphasized that a study must include recommendations that are clear, positive, and tied to the critical stakeholders.

The first questioner was curious about what Mr. Coates would have put on the list of solutions to save the world. One would be to radically reduce birth rate.

Another person asked about the massive debt overhang in the United States. Mr. Coates said that would require a psychiatrist. He said the world is not ready for a solution to that problem.

Another questioner asked if, because of technological progress, changes will happen more rapidly in the future? Sure, it could, he said. Or it might not, depending on how we react.

One person asked how Mr. Coates deals with mathematical chaos. Mr. Coates observed that the further out you go, the less relevant is mathematics.

Another asked about a revival of the Office of Technology Assessment. Mr. Coates said there is some discussion of it. It would be better to recreate it in a more workable model. OTA was overloaded and over politicized. It was often late with input. It was forbidden to raise new alternatives.

Someone asked how to identify a champion to whom to make a recommendation, in a problem that has hundreds of participants. Mr. Coates said that comes out of the work. You identify the stakeholders and determine their roles. Chances are one or more of the stakeholders will be the one you need.


After the talk, Mr. Haapala presented a plaque to Mr. Coates commemorating the occasion. He introduced new members. He made a pitch for support and asked people to consider joining, contributing, and sponsoring meetings. He noted that meetings now cost about $880 each. He referred parking transgressors to Boris Ciorneiu.

Finally, at 9:45 pm, he adjourned the 2,237th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 58
The weather: Mild
The temperature: 13°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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